Some of the greatest works of modern literature have emerged from the depths of suffering. These four African American authors have engaged with literature as a medium to reflect upon dark circumstances, and their works eloquently characterize the experience of being black in America. These are some of the best classic books written by African American authors that expose profound realities and continue to transform the literary landscape for the better.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
In her autobiography, Maya Angelou recounts her early childhood growing up in 1930’s America. Maya and her brother Bailey are sent to Arkansas, in the segregated south, after their parents’ separation. Though they’re sheltered by grandma (“Momma”), racism plagues many, many interactions and relationships Angelou experiences in the Deep South. Maya endures extraordinary suffering in the years that follow, but the guidance of a close friend introduces her to poetry and literature, through which she explores and expresses her identity and experiences.
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Invisible Man’s complexity quietly hides behind a sympathetic narrator, an engaging plot, and a painfully accurate representation of racial oppression in America. The narrator desperately attempts to find an identity for himself in a world that has made him invisible, eventually retreating underground to escape from society’s insanity. Chock full of sensuous motifs, allusions, and themes, Invisible Man offers one of the most profound critiques of American racism found in any 20th century novel. If you’re ready for a brilliant, challenging read, it doesn’t get much better than this.
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Beloved captures the lasting psychological violence that slavery inflicted on its victims. A series of ambiguous, disjointed monologues by various characters reflect the anguished psyche of the main character, Sethe. We follow her journey out of slavery as she attempts to find some peace in her new life in Ohio with her daughter, Denver. Sethe continues to relive the trauma and guilt of her past, while Denver distances herself from slavery’s horrors and flourishes in the outside world.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
Outspoken Janie Crawford dreams of finding a love that will nourish her inner strength, not stifle it. Her defiance quickly gets her into trouble—her innocent flirtations with a local boy concern her grandmother, who marries her off to a wealthy farmer named Logan Killicks. Logan soon begins to viciously beat Janie, who does not at all conform to his expectations of a meek, submissive wife. She starts a new life with another man, but the cycle of violence goes on with her new partner—and this is far from the last of the hardships and tragedies that Janie will face.
Though a book that features exclusively black protagonists, Their Eyes Were Watching God is not primarily a story about racism. Rather, it illustrates the personal journey of a courageous woman who takes command of her destiny despite adversity.